C.S. Lewis in his autobiographical writing, Surprised by Joy, wrote about his pre-conversion experience with the writings of George MacDonald. What he found as he read Phantastes on a few hour train ride caused him to reflect, “I knew I had crossed a great frontier.” He would even say to read MacDonald was to him somewhat of a “baptism” of his imagination. Lewis, a giant not only in faith, but first in literature, though well acquainted with the likes of Spencer and Bunyan, was transformed by his acquaintance with the writings of this old Scottish Preacher. The transformation resulted in a great frontiersman in fiction writing in the twentieth century whose contributions will not be short lived.
Today, 112 years after his birth, I wish to celebrate Clive Staples Lewis and his imagination and what his imagination has now done for a few generations of children and open minded adults, particularly in my case.
I would not read a page of fiction by C.S. Lewis until my second year in college, when I would, while working at a summer camp, enter the wintry world of Narnia through a wardrobe with the Pevensie children. What I found there did indeed “baptize” my imagination as we encountered the White Witch and a world where it was always winter but never Christmas. I never imagined desiring to have tea in the hut of a half-goat half-man that would include sardines until I followed Mr. Tumnus and Lucy past the lamppost. As we encountered the age old battle between good and evil and personal pride and sin, we found the beauty of Aslan, a larger-than-life Lion, whose presence strangely warmed or alarmed all those who came in contact with him. With his personal sacrifice by submitting his own life, his resurrection, the cracking of the stone table, death itself turning backwards, and the declaration that “it is finished!”, the reality that came roaring into my imagination broke into to my senses and left me exposed to glory in the greater story told through the pages of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. I welcomed with gladness a wild and not tamed Lion book by book until The Last Battle where I found the desire to move “further up and further in.”
One cold evening I finally decided to open the pages of The Great Divorce and met George MacDonald face to face with the dreaming Jack Lewis. As we stopped at the bus station, found the grayness, dreariness and otherworldly ghostness and pride-fullness of “hell”, I was greatly relieved to see the sunlight and imagine the harshness of the real grass in the high countries and their greatness as we saw the reality of heaven. I read the entire book in one evening and no other short work of fiction with a one time reading has left such an indelible impression upon me as this book did.
Now, years after beginning my journey, I am completing my own much longer train ride, in the last few pages of That Hideous Strength, completing again the story of mankind and our unearthly pride. I find myself repenting of my own “bentness” and even sifting through Sovereignty and moral free agency while enjoying the exploits of Dr. Ransom on Melacandra and Pelandra (Mars and Venus). Books that are owed by the likes of George Lucas some homage as to Lewis’s imagination of Space and Space Travel decades before the reality, and the encountering of unforgettable extra-terrestrial characters are a fine capstone to the fictional journey of any mature Lewis reader, and any Science Fiction reader period for that matter.
All in all, though quite engaging as an apologist with quippy sayings that will be quoted a million times over, and though his contributions to the world of literary criticism will not soon fade or be surpassed, in the fictional writings of Clive Staples Lewis, I believe the reader is able to get a inkling for “Jack.” Here you find a scholar in his tweed jacket who would only leave his Oxford and Cambridge world a few times later in life, traveling around the universe as a schoolboy with a ferocious appetite for truth told through gripping pages extricating the reader from his or her own present world.
Thank you, Mr. Lewis, for baptizing the imagination of an analytical and detail oriented historian, and Happy Birthday Jack.